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7 Things I Learned Building An 8-figure Strategic Marketing Agency Over A Decade

Updated: May 15

Michael Donovan, Lusaka, Zambia, 2023.

From 2000 to 2013 I built and then sold my first strategic marketing agency, Donovan Creative Communications. In that time, we became known as a premiere independent agency in Canada, with clients across the country and into the United States. In that time the agency won over 50 international awards for branding, marketing, communications, and digital innovation. I won Small Business Owner of the Year in Edmonton, was a finalist for Small Business Owner of the Year in Alberta, and was a finalist for SBO of the Year Edmonton for a second year in a row. Sometime in 2012 I was awarded the City of Edmonton's most prestigious recognition award for bringing sustained international attention to Edmonton and the Greater Edmonton Region.

At our largest, Donovan Creative Communications employed 30 people full time, with another 10-12 contractors supporting the core in-house disciplines. The majority of Donovan Creative's business was building or reinventing brands and marketing those brands for growth; Donovan had clients from across a spectrum, from large national and multinational firms, to SME's in a whole host of sectors, governments at three levels, and some innovative startups.

Donovan Creative started out of my acreage closet after the marketing agency I had been working for closed its doors. Donovan started with no funding and an old desktop computer on dialup modem. By 2013 we had billed over $42,000,000, and made 10x that for our clients over that time, setting some new revenue records along the way for some large Canadian companies.

In 2013 I was courted by another agency who wanted to buy Donovan; it wasn't the first time, I had turned down offers in the past. But after thinking about it for a few months, and assessing where I was at in my life at that time, I decided to take the next step and do something different, a different way.

Since that time, I've built three more companies, Donovan Strategic Communications, which is a marketing consultancy, Law Firm Marketing Team, which is a digital marketing company tailored to the law firm market, and an artisinal gold and emerald mining and trading company in Zambia, Africa, called Verocious Mineral Mining.

I learned a lot building, running and selling Donovan Creative; and I've learned just as much again from then to now, probably more.

I'm writing to you now from Lusaka, Zambia, where I work long distance for my North American clients on marketing and branding projects, build the client base for Law Firm Marketing Team, and oversee operations for Verocious Mineral Mining. I'm happier than I've ever been and ever was running an extremely busy agency - though I also loved that, however stressful it was a lot of the time, as it always is when you're responsible for people and revenue.

I've had a lot of time to think about some important lessons I've learned; and while there are definitely many more than seven, I thought I could boil down the most important lessons to fewer than 10 (afterall, distilling information has been part of my career these last twenty-something years). So here are my top seven lessons learned in the advertising and marketing business, as an entrepreneur, a leader of people, and someone always striving to exceed my own grasp while balancing a family and the demands of work. These aren't in any particular order, just how they came to me:

  1. Take very good care of your family or significant other. Owning and running a business takes a toll on everyone involved, and you need to realize this includes the most important people in your life. One of the keys to happiness and productivity is making sure you make time for and appreciate the people in your life who will be your biggest champions, especially if you show and tell them how important they are;

  2. Take good care of your people. Finding and keeping great people is challenging; and, yes, you will always have issues with some personalities, it's just the way of business. Taking care of your people boils down to appreciating them and showing respect for them by actions (and words) that demonstrate how important they are to you and how they contribute to the success and mission of the company. Communicating more than less is important because people need reinforcement and repetition to feel secure and contented and valued;

  3. Take care of yourself. I can say without question that I did not take care of myself in those 13 years running an agency. I had bad habits, ate poorly, slept badly, and pushed myself far too hard at times where my brain felt like it was on fire. I found myself burning out more and more often as time went on. So rest and self care are definitely important and took me some time to learn. If rest in the middle of the day makes you more productive, then that was time well spent. If I feel the need to take time, these days I do that and make my life the priority over my schedule. I still never miss a deadline, I just make life work first because business benefits when you're running this way instead of putting work, work, work above all else. If you're not healthy, your relationship to your business can't be healthy;

  4. Congratulate yourself because nobody else will. I think it's important to think big but put one foot in front of the other and move forward on something every day to get you to your big goals. Some people fail before they even begin because while they have a big future goal they think that the way there is insurmountable and they become discouraged. Nothing is insurmountable. You just have to take the steps to get there. While you're at it, congratulate yourself for the small steps you take, and the little things you get done day to day, because they add up to larger accomplishments; and if you're not your own best champion you're going to have some truly bleak and unrewarding days;

  5. Listen more than you speak. I learned this a long time ago when I worked briefly in journalism; yoy get more out of people when you're quiet and give them the room to tell their story. This is no less true in the adverting business; with the right questions asked, I always let clients run on, because they end up telling you things they otherwise wouldn't if you truncate the conversation by interruptions or some artificial time limit;

  6. Work on things you love for people you can respect. I've done my share of work purely for money for people I didn't especially like on projects that didn't excite me much. I don't do that anymore; it's meant that I've passed on projects and contracts that could have been lucrative, sometimes when I needed the money the most. But there's a better feeling of integrity of purpose when you decide to prioritize good, well-intentioned people who also like and respect you for who you are and what you do. You should never put up with any kind of abuse in business, no matter what. I've rationalized bad clients and attitudes in the past by saying to myself, 'well at least we're getting paid'; but that's a terrible reason for anything and justifying bad behaviour by customers is a really bad habit, no matter what;

  7. Don't let people get you down. There was a time when I used to let the negative or discouraging words of other people influence my moods too much; and I would take that home with me from the office, imagining the negative things they must be saying when I'm not in the room. You can't control what others say, but you can control how you respond. Whatever negative things might be said, with you there or not there, remember that this says everything about them and nothing about you, and usually comes from a place of low esteem, jealousy over what you have or your talents, or projection. The kinds of people you want in your life and business are those who speak well of you and advocate for you when you're not in the room. So working towards surrounding yourself with as many quality people of character as possible is a great goal and a true life achievement. Leave the negative people to do what they do, let them try to discourage you or gossip. These are small minds and you won't get anywhere engaging with small minds. You have bigger things to care about than what others have to say, so staying focused on what you want to achieve is a powerful remedy.

Now that I'm at the end of these seven things, I feel like this isn't nearly complete; I've learned much more than this, but I think this is a good start. I plan to come back to the blog soon to talk some more about business and life. For now, thank you for taking the time to read this; I hope it helps at least one person who might need some basic advice, perspective, or encouragement based on lived experience.